The surprising reasons there are so few Black scientists in the space industry

Kristyn Martin
·12 mins read
Black astrophysicists say there is systemic racism in their industry that needs to be addressed. (Photo illustration: Nathalie Cruz, Yahoo Life)
Black astrophysicists say there is systemic racism in their industry that needs to be addressed. (Photo illustration: Nathalie Cruz, Yahoo Life)

The Black Lives Matter movement has reignited an awakening inside the space and astrophysics community, with Black astrophysicists staging protests and walkouts to raise awareness about the stark diversity problem and structural racism in their field.

“I faced many academic challenges with people who thought that I was not good enough to be an astronomer,” Ashley Walker, an astrochemist and intern at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, tells Yahoo Life.

Walker created the #blackinastro hashtag in the days following the death of George Floyd to highlight the Black experience in astronomy. It’s one of a slew of recent campaigns to raise awareness about the lack of Black professionals in the field.

“I want to show that we do exist, and I want to show the challenges that we face in academia and also the challenges that we share at home,” she says.

A 2018 survey of the American Astronomical Society, which is made up of undergraduate and graduate students, faculty members and retired astronomers, found that only 2 percent of its members identified as Black or African-American, compared with 82 percent who identified as white.

Walker, who is a member of the organization African American Women in Physics, says there are only 22 Black female astronomers in the U.S.

Her experiences were profiled on Astrobites, a website run by and for astronomy graduate students all over the world, and her profile was part of a larger #BlackInAstro series to highlight Black astrophysicists.

“It’s ... a call to action for our non-Black astronomers to realize there are, in fact, Black people in our field and it is our moral imperative to make our field better for them” says Mia de los Reyes, who writes for Astrobites and led the #BlackInAstro series.

“A lack of racial diversity in STEM is a symptom of a much deeper problem,” says Brittany Kamai, an astrophysicist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. She’s a co-lead of the #ShutDownStem movement, which staged a one-day strike on June 10 to highlight systemic racism in the field and to stop business as usual in the wake of George Floyd’s death. One goal was to encourage non-Black people to have a day of action to self-educate about anti-Black racism and white supremacy in their field.

“What we have seen in the last month is an increased awareness of what the root problem is and strong commitments to create sustainable action plans,” Kamai tells Yahoo Life. “What we are seeing is people start at the individual level, work within their local communities and understand their impacts on the global scientific community. I am hopeful, through increased accountability, that we will create systemic change to remove anti-Black racist narratives from our consciousness and save lives.”

Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson shared on Facebook his experience of being pulled over by police dozens of times in the course of his life, including once in front of the physics building as he was moving textbooks into his new office. He said that they were experiences that he and other Black members of the National Society of Black Physicists discussed for hours once after a conference.

“I hardly ever think about the color of my skin. It never comes up when contemplating the cosmos. Yet when I exit my front door, I’m a crime suspect,” he wrote. At a conference in 2009 he revealed how difficult his professional path was as a Black man striving to become an astrophysicist: “All I can say is, the fact that I wanted to be a scientist and an astrophysicist was hands-down the path of most resistance through the forces of nature and the forces of society. Any time I expressed this interest, teachers would say ‘don’t you want to be an athlete?’”

“I’m not sure that non-Black professors [and] leaders fully understand how this issue affects Black people on an everyday basis,” says Cheyenne Polius, who graduated this year from the University of Sheffield with an integrated master’s degree in physics and astrophysics. “But I think with the recent coverage of the BLM movement, that may all begin to change.”

Polius tells Yahoo Life that out of 100 physics students in her first year, there were only five Black students. According to the Statistical Research Center at the American Institute of Physics, only 4 percent of physics and astronomy bachelor’s degrees are earned by African-Americans.

Polius, who grew up in St. Lucia in a primarily Black school with mostly Black female teachers, says she had no idea how rare it was to be a Black woman in the field until she moved to the U.K. for college. “It was only when I got to the U.K. that I was branded with terms like ‘international student,’ ‘Black and minority ethnic student’ and ‘woman in science/STEM.’ That's when I started to fully understand just how unique I was.”

“Women of color really have very few role models in academia in general, but in space and astrophysics, there’s very few people who look like them,” says Stefanie Johnson, professor at the University of Colorado Leeds School of Business. She researches the intersection between leadership and diversity inclusion and is the author of the book Inclusify, which focuses on what leaders can do to create diversity and inclusion.

For the past four years she has worked with Hubble Space Telescope to improve its scientific review application process, which chooses who gets time and money to do research there. She asked Hubble to remove names from the applications and for applicants to write their proposal differently so that evaluators would be able to assess only the science, not the race or gender of the applicant. The first year of the application process, Johnson says they found less gender bias, and women outperformed men by small margins.

“I guess the point of doing it wasn’t the idea that women are just better astrophysicists,” she says. “It’s more that they’re probably more equal than we give them credit for, but our biases hold us back from making truly fair judgments.”

And she says those biases extend well beyond gender in academia.

“I’m not going to say for space in particular, but for all fields, I think there’s a lot stronger bias against people of color and particularly Black Americans and particularly Black women,” she says. “I think there’s obviously the unconscious bias, which is a lot of what I talk about, but clearly there’s a lot of conscious bias too, just like overt racism.”

She points to the race wealth gap in America as a starting point for systemic racism.

“If you have less wealth, you may have to ... take a job to pay for college ... and then when you’re in college, you may get bias from faculty.”

Johnson says professors are more likely to mentor people who look like them and says in grad school, the bias continues with older white faculty and what she calls a “good old boys network.”

“And so they have connections with each other that I don’t think are aimed at keeping out people of color, but if you follow all the biases together. … It just really starts to add up,” she says.

“Academia has this really strong hierarchy, and that’s true even in positions [at] NASA. A lot of jobs and networking ... it’s who you know; it’s not what you know,” says de los Reyes. “So that can make it really difficult for folks who don’t have access to those existing networks. It can be really difficult for them to break in. And that’s as true at NASA as it is everywhere else. They’re not very diverse at all.”

But a spokesperson for NASA disagrees with that assessment.

“Do we have opportunities to improve our inclusion and our participation rates of minorities, including African-Americans? Absolutely,” says Steve Shih, NASA’s associate administrator for diversity and equal opportunity. “I think what you’ll see is we have so many success stories from our data, including the fact that we have a pretty proportional representation of African-Americans in our workforce.”

He points to overall representation of African-Americans at NASA at 11.5 percent compared with representation in the larger workforce in the U.S., which he cites at 12 percent. He also points to several African-American senior executive leaders at NASA with responsibilities in the STEM field, including Clayton Turner, director of Langley Research Center; Vanessa Wyche, center deputy director of Johnson Space Center; and Kelvin Manning, center associate director of the Kennedy Space Center.

He says NASA has been having widespread race dialogues across the organization in the wake of the death of George Floyd and will use those comments to inform an updated diversity and inclusion strategic plan, which was created in 2016 under the leadership of Charles Bolden, NASA’s first Black administrator.

That diversity plan expired last year.

Last week, NASA renamed its headquarters in Washington, D.C., after Mary W. Jackson, the first Black female engineer at NASA as portrayed in the movie Hidden Figures. The movie highlighted the important work of four Black female mathematicians in the 1950s — as well as the rampant racism and segregation at NASA.

Shih points to NASA’s close connections to the civil rights movement, including in 1964 when the organization hired a group of young Black men from Baton Rouge, La., to work at Marshall Space Flight Center. They were the first Black engineers and contributed to NASA’s Apollo space program.

NASA’s efforts to focus on recruiting specifically Black candidates into the organization has shifted since the ’60s. Now the organization partners with historically Black colleges and universities and has awarded $33 million in grants through its Minority University Research and Education Project.

But NASA’s astronauts have historically skewed white and male. There are less than 20 Black astronauts in NASA’s history. According to NASA’s list of the current active 48 astronauts, there are only four who are Black: Victor Glover, Jessica Watkins, Jeanette Epps and Stephanie Wilson. Three of the Black astronauts have never been on a mission.

When asked if NASA is shifting policies to address specific concerns of their Black workers in light of the death of George Floyd, Shih said it would be more accurate to say that NASA is prioritizing all diversity and inclusion.

”We do care about African-Americans, and we recognize that there’s societal issues right now pertaining specifically to African-Americans,” he says. “We have to consider African-Americans and everyone else as well. If we focus exclusively on African-Americans, we end up not getting access to talent and involving other groups, and it’s really kind of as simple as that.”

In response, Kamai says: “Now is the time to turn that conversation into direct action that will eradicate anti-Black racism and enable our Black colleagues to thrive. Racism is a fundamental problem in science, which means there needs to be funding allocated toward solving that problem. NASA needs to create a more robust system of evaluation and accountability for everyone receiving NASA funding. We need to see all of our funding agencies, including NSF and DOE, move from dialogue into actions that will end systemic racism.’

Former astronaut Leland Melvin shared a powerful story in conversation with Bill Nye about racial inequality, saying that when he saw the Apollo moon landing in 1969, “I didn’t think about becoming an astronaut, because I didn’t see someone who looked like me.”

But he says he does believe the recent Black Lives Matter protests could effect real change.

“I’m an optimist,” he said. “If a skinny Black kid from a formerly Southern racist town can go to space two times, anything is possible. This ain’t rocket science.”

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